Box et al v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, The et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 9/25/14. (ASL)
2014 Sep-25 PM 03:46
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
KEVIN BOX, ET AL.,
GOODYEAR TIRE & RUBBER
COMPANY, ET AL.,
CASE NO.: 4:11-CV-02829-MHH
This is an ERISA action. Plaintiff Kevin Box, individually and as the
representative for the Estate of Kenneth Box, and plaintiff Katrina Evatt seek
pension benefits under defendant Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s 1950
Plaintiffs are the children of Kenneth Box. Mr. Box was an
employee of Goodyear from September 5, 1975 until August 5, 2003, and he
participated in the company’s pension plan. On August 5, 2003, Mr. Box was shot
and killed by his wife, Barbara A. Box.
At the time of his death, Mr. Box was an active Goodyear employee and was
not receiving benefits under the pension plan. The Goodyear pension plan is a
defined benefit plan. The plan provides a qualified pre-retirement survivor annuity
(“QPSA”) benefit for the surviving spouse of a vested plan participant who dies
before he is eligible to receive his pension benefit.
Plaintiffs argue that the pre-retirement spousal benefit should be paid either
to the estate of Kenneth Box or to Mr. Box’s heirs because Mrs. Box is not eligible
for the benefit. Goodyear agrees that Mrs. Box is not eligible for the benefit but
argues that because the plan provides no contingent beneficiary for the QPSA, the
pre-retirement spousal benefit is not payable to any person, not even Mr. Box’s
estate or his heirs. This Court must determine whether Goodyear must pay the preretirement spousal benefit under the terms of the plan.
ERISA STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Eleventh Circuit has formulated a multi-step framework for courts
reviewing an ERISA plan administrator’s benefits decisions:
(1) Apply the de novo standard to determine whether the claim
administrator’s benefits-denial decision is “wrong” (i.e., the court
disagrees with the administrator's decision); if it is not, then end the
inquiry and affirm the decision.
(2) If the administrator’s decision in fact is “de novo wrong,” then
determine whether he was vested with discretion in reviewing claims;
if not, end judicial inquiry and reverse the decision.
(3) If the administrator’s decision is “de novo wrong” and he was
vested with discretion in reviewing claims, then determine whether
“reasonable” grounds supported it (hence, review his decision under
the more deferential arbitrary and capricious standard).
(4) If no reasonable grounds exist, then end the inquiry and reverse
the administrator’s decision; if reasonable grounds do exist, then
determine if he operated under a conflict of interest.
(5) If there is no conflict, then end the inquiry and affirm the
(6) If there is a conflict, the conflict should merely be a factor for
the court to take into account when determining whether an
administrator’s decision was arbitrary and capricious.
Blankenship v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 644 F.3d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir. 2011). All
steps of the analysis are “potentially at issue” when a plan vests discretion in the
plan administrator to make benefits determinations.
Id. at 1356, n. 7.
plaintiffs bear the burden of proving that they are entitled to ERISA benefits under
the plan. Horton v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., 141 F.3d 1038, 1040 (11th Cir.
FACTUAL BACKGROUND 1
Goodyear’s plan is a “pension plan” as that term is defined in ERISA, 29
U.S.C. §1002(2)(A). (Doc. 14-1, p. 8). The plan designates a “Pension Board” to
administer the plan. (Doc. 14-9, p. 4). The plan vests the Pension Board with
discretionary power over every facet of plan administration. (Id.).
The parties filed a Stipulation of Facts in which the parties stipulated that Goodyear’s Initial
Disclosures and the documents produced by Goodyear with those disclosures are authentic and
relevant. (Doc. 13).
Before a claim reaches the Pension Board in the administrative review
process, a plan administrator determines whether to accept or deny a claim for
benefits under the pension plan. (Doc. 14-4, pp. 48–49). If a plan administrator
denies a claim for pension benefits, then the claimant may appeal using the plan’s
administrative review process. (Id. at 47–48). The plan’s administrative review
process consists of two levels. The “Benefits Review Committee” conducts the
first level of review, and the Pension Board, which is also referred to as the
“ERISA Appeals Committee,” conducts the second and final level of review. (Id.
Article V of the plan provides for a QPSA, called the “Special 50% Joint and
Survivor Pre-Retirement Option.” (Doc. 16-1, p. 13). Article V(1) states that if an
employee dies before receiving his plan benefit payment, his surviving spouse is
entitled to receive monthly benefit payments for the spouse’s lifetime. (Id.). For a
surviving spouse to qualify for the monthly benefit, the spouse and the employee
must have been married for a one-year period ending on the date of the employee’s
death, and the employee must not have elected to waive the pre-retirement spousal
benefit. (Id. at 13–14).
The plan does not address eligibility and payment options for the preretirement spousal benefit under the plan should the surviving spouse murder the
plan participant, violate state or federal law in a manner that would preclude the
surviving spouse’s right to such benefit, or otherwise become ineligible for the
benefit. (Doc. 16-1; Doc. 16-3, p. 1; Doc. 16-4, p. 1). The plan provides no option
for an employee to elect or designate a contingent or secondary beneficiary of the
QPSA benefit. (Doc. 16-1; Doc. 16-3, p. 1). Article V(1) provides that only a
surviving spouse is eligible for the payment of the pre-retirement spousal benefit,
and the plan does not authorize payment of such benefit to another beneficiary.
(Doc. 14-4, pp. 26–28). Article V(1) states:
The surviving spouse of a married Employee or former Employee
who has at least one hour of service or is on paid leave after August
22, 1984, who is entitled to a pension under the provisions of Article
III as in effect on the date of his death, and who dies prior to the
commencement of retirement benefits under the Plan will be covered
by the Pre-Retirement Benefit described in this Paragraph 1 in lieu of
any pension otherwise payable under the Plan; provided that the
deceased Employee or former Employee has been married to the
surviving spouse throughout the one-year period ending on the date of
his death; and provided, further, that during the applicable election
period the Employee or former Employee did not elect, with spousal
consent, to waive the Pre-Retirement Benefit provided hereunder. . . .
Upon the death after August 22, 1984, and prior to retirement
eligibility of any married Employee or former Employee who has not
effectively waived the Pre-Retirement Benefit provided hereunder or
who has revoked a prior effective waiver of the Pre-Retirement
Benefit provided hereunder, monthly payments will be made to the
surviving spouse of the Employee. . . .
The Benefit Claim Dispute
On August 5, 2003, Barbara Box shot and killed her husband, Kenneth Box.
(Doc. 1, ¶ 11; Doc. 9, ¶ 11; Doc. 16-5). Mrs. Box was convicted of murder in the
Circuit Court of Etowah County in March 2006 and currently is in jail. (Doc. 1, ¶
11; Doc. 9, ¶ 11; Doc. 16-5). Mr. and Mrs. Box were married for the 12 months
immediately preceding Mr. Box’s death, and he did not waive the pre-retirement
spousal benefit. (Doc. 14-4, p. 38). Mr. Box was an active employee when he
died, meaning that he was not retired and was not receiving a benefit under the
plan. (Id.). Kevin Box and Katrina Evatt are the surviving heirs of Kenneth Box.
(Doc. 1, ¶¶ 1, 2).
In 2007, an attorney representing Mr. Box’s estate requested information
from Goodyear regarding Mr. Box’s pension benefits so that the benefits could be
included in the valuation and settlement of his estate. (Doc. 14-4, p. 49). In a
letter dated July 12, 2007, the administrator of Goodyear’s plan denied this request.
(Id.). The letter stated that pension benefits were not payable to the estate or to
anyone other than the spouse, Barbara Box. (Id.).
In 2010, the plaintiffs’ attorney asked Goodyear for copies of various plan
documents and Mr. Box’s complete pension claim file. (Doc. 14-5 pp. 49–50).
The plan administrator denied the request for plan documents in a letter dated May
7, 2010. (Id. at 37). The letter states: “Legally, we are required to pay pension
benefits to the spouse without having written consent to pay otherwise.” (Id.). The
administrator also notified plaintiffs’ counsel that the plaintiffs had a right to
appeal to the Benefits Review Committee and to submit evidence in support of an
appeal. (Id. at 37–38). On June 1, 2010, the plaintiffs responded to Goodyear’s
denial of the request for plan documents. (Id. at 35–36). Plaintiffs cited federal
case law that discusses the doctrine of “killers don’t take” and asked the plan to
pay the pension benefit to Kenneth Box’s estate. (Id.).
Benefits Review Committee. (Id. at 34). The Benefits Review Committee met in
September 2010 to consider plaintiffs’ claim and reviewed all available
information, including the plan and the information that plaintiffs submitted in
support of their claim. (Id. at 23–24). In a letter dated October 4, 2010, the
committee denied plaintiffs’ appeal. (Id.). The letter states that because federal
common law and Alabama’s “slayer statute” prohibit payment of benefits to a
surviving spouse convicted of murdering the plan participant, the plan determined
that no payment should be made to Mrs. Box. (Id.). According to the letter, no
benefits were payable to any other person because, absent spousal waiver, the preretirement spousal benefit is available only to an employee’s surviving spouse
under the terms of the plan. (Id.).
In an October 13, 2010 letter, the plaintiffs requested a copy of all
documents, records, and other information that the Benefits Review Committee
relied upon in arriving at its decision. (Doc. 14-5, pp. 21–22). On November 22,
2010, Goodyear shared with the plaintiffs “all of the information that was provided
to Goodyear’s Benefits Review Committee for them to make a decision in the
claim review process of Kenneth Box.” (Id. at 19).
On December 2, 2010, in accordance with the pension plan’s administrative
procedures, the plaintiffs appealed to Goodyear’s ERISA Appeals Committee.
(Doc. 14-4, pp. 39–42). Plaintiffs argued that federal common law, the Alabama
slayer statute, and Alabama state law all supported payment of the pension benefit
to the estate or heirs of the murdered plan participant in lieu of the slaying spouse.
(Id.). Plaintiffs again asked Goodyear to make pension payments either to the
estate of Kenneth Box or to Kevin Box and Katrina Evatt directly. (Id.). A
timeline of events and an appendix of materials, including all correspondence
between plaintiffs and the plan as well as federal and state case law, accompanied
the letter. (Id. at 36).
On March 16, 2011, Goodyear’s ERISA Appeals Committee held an appeal
hearing on the plaintiffs’ claim. (Doc. 16-11). During the appeal hearing and
immediately following the hearing, plaintiffs’ counsel presented legal authority to
the Goodyear ERISA Appeals Committee to support the plaintiffs’ request for
On March 25, 2011, Goodyear sent a letter to the plaintiffs denying their
second appeal for pension benefits. (Doc. 14-4, p. 17–18). Goodyear explained
that it had reviewed all of the information contained in Mr. Box’s claim file and all
of the information that the plaintiffs submitted, including the information presented
at the March 16, 2011 appeal hearing. (Id.). Goodyear stated that according to the
plan, only a surviving spouse is entitled to annuity payments when a married plan
participant dies before starting to receive a monthly pension payment.
Goodyear wrote that, “[t]his is a result of the Plan design . . .” (Id.). Goodyear
noted that the factual circumstances of the plaintiffs’ claim presented a matter of
“first impression” for the Pension Board. (Id.). Goodyear considered federal
common law and Alabama’s “slayer statute” and ultimately determined that federal
common law controlled plan administration. (Id.). Goodyear found that under the
federal common law “slayer rule,” Mr. Box’s surviving spouse was barred from
receiving the Pre-Retirement Spousal Benefit. (Id.).
The plaintiffs exhausted all administrative remedies available under the plan.
(Doc. 16-4, p. 2). On August 16, 2011, based on the Pension Board’s final denial
of their claim for pension benefits, the plaintiffs filed suit under ERISA in this
Court. (Doc. 1).
The parties have raised several issues. The Court considers those issues in
the following order: (1) whether the plaintiffs have standing; (2) whether
Goodyear’s denial of ERISA benefits was proper under the applicable standard of
review; and (3) whether the plaintiffs can assert a breach of fiduciary duty claim
Mr. Box has derivative standing to bring suit under ERISA as the
personal representative of a former plan participant’s estate.
To pursue an ERISA claim, a plaintiff must have standing. Courts recognize
two types of standing under § 1132(a): independent standing and derivative
standing. See Cagle v. Bruner, 112 F.3d 1510, 1514–15 (11th Cir. 1997), reh’g en
banc denied, 124 F.3d 223 (11th Cir. 1997); see also Estate of Prince v. Aetna Life
Ins. Co., 2008 WL 4327049, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 19, 2008). Participants and
beneficiaries have independent standing under § 1132(a).
29 U.S.C. §
1132(a)(1)(B). “[S]uccessors in interest to participants or beneficiaries may 
sustain an action under § 1132(a)(1)(B), via derivative standing.” Estate of Prince,
2008 WL 4327049, at *3; see also Cagle, 112 F.3d at 1515 (holding that a party
may obtain “derivative standing based upon an assignment of rights from an entity
listed in” § 1132(a)).
In his capacity as the representative for the estate of Kenneth Box, Kevin
Box has derivative standing.
“[A] deceased-participant’s estate qualifies for
derivative standing” because the estate “‘seeks only to enforce the beneficiary’s
rights to pre-death accrued’” benefits. Estate of Prince, 2008 WL 4327049, at *3
(quoting Cottle v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 1993 WL 8201, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 13,
1993); see also James v. La. Laborers Health and Welfare Fund, 766 F. Supp 530,
533 (E.D. La. 1991). This is true even when the deceased would not have been
entitled any benefit. See In re Estate of Burkland, 2012 WL 13550 (E.D. Pa. Jan.
3, 2012). In Estate of Burkland, the estate of a deceased plan participant, whose
wife allegedly killed him, challenged the distribution of life insurance proceeds
under the deceased’s plan. 2012 WL 13550, at *1. The deceased’s wife was
named as the primary beneficiary on the insurance policy, and the deceased’s son
was the contingent beneficiary. Id. The deceased’s wife allegedly disclaimed her
rights to the policy pursuant to an agreement with her son, the contingent
beneficiary, so that her son would give her a portion of the proceeds to retain an
attorney for her homicide defense. Id. The court held that the estate had standing
to challenge the distribution as a representative of a former plan participant. Id. at
Consistent with this persuasive authority, Kevin Box, acting as personal
representative for the estate of a former plan participant, has derivative standing to
pursue plan benefits in this action.2 Therefore, the Court reaches the merits of the
estate’s challenge to Goodyear’s refusal to pay the QPSA benefit.
Goodyear Properly Denied the ERISA Benefits.
The Court begins its analysis by determining de novo whether the claim
administrator’s denial of benefits was wrong. In reaching his decision, the claims
administrator had to examine the extent to which Mr. Box’s murder by his wife,
Mrs. Box, impacted the QPSA benefit. The analysis turned on the administrator’s
interpretation of the terms of the plan and his selection and application of the
appropriate “slayer rule,” a rule concerning the eligibility of a beneficiary who
murders an insured. The administrator considered both Alabama law and federal
law and decided to apply the federal common law slayer rule. (Doc. 14-4, pp. 17–
18). The estate of Kenneth Box asserts that the administrator erred because the
administrator should have used Alabama’s slayer rule to evaluate the plaintiffs’
Kevin Box and Katrina Evatt do not have standing in their individual capacities because they
are neither plan participants nor beneficiaries. They are not plan participants because they are
not Goodyear employees. Box and Evatt are not beneficiaries because neither is “a person
designated by a participant, or by the terms of an employee benefit plan, who is or may become
entitled to a benefit thereunder.” 29 U.S.C. § 1002(8). The estate of Kenneth Box also is not a
beneficiary. Mr. Box did not designate his estate as a QPSA beneficiary, and the plan does not
designate the estate as such. Therefore, the estate does not have independent standing.
request for benefits. (Doc. 16, p. 11; Doc. 19, p. 3). The Court does not have to
choose because federal common law and Alabama’s slayer statute dictate the same
result in this action. 3
Honeywell Savings & Ownership Plan v. Jicha, 2010 WL 276237 (D.N.J.
Jan. 15, 2010), illustrates the point. In Honeywell, an ERISA plan participant was
murdered. Id. The participant’s husband was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill
the participant. Id. At the time of her death, the decedent was enrolled in three
employee benefit plans: a Savings and Ownership Plan (“SOP”), a Secured Benefit
Plan (“SBP”), and a pension plan. Id. at *2. The decedent did not designate a
beneficiary under these plans. Id. The SOP and SBP both provided that if the
participant failed to name a beneficiary, then at the participant’s death, the benefit
would go to the participant’s spouse, or if there was no spouse, to the participant’s
estate. Id. The QPSA stated that the surviving spouse was entitled to the benefit
unless the participant elected not to provide QPSA coverage or the spouse had not
The federal rule applies in this case if ERISA preempts Alabama’s slayer rule. Neither the
United States Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has determined whether
ERISA preempts state slayer statutes. See Egelhoff v. Egelhoff ex rel. Breiner, 532 U.S. 141, 152
(2001) (declining to address whether ERISA preempts state slayer statutes); Kennedy v. Plan
Admin’r for DuPont Sav. And Inv. Plan, 555 U.S. 285 (2009) (same). Several district courts
have concluded that ERISA does not preempt state slayer statutes. Courts addressing the issue
have looked to Egelhoff, 532 U.S. at 152 (2001). There, the United States Supreme Court
refused to rule on whether ERISA preempts state slayer statutes, but the Court noted in dicta that
“the principle underlying [slayer] statutes—which have been adopted by nearly every State—is
well established in the law and has a long historical pedigree predating ERISA.” (Id.); see
Atwater v. Nortel Networks, Inc., 388 F. Supp. 2d 610, 614 (M.D.N.C. 2005); Admin. Comm. for
the H.E.B. Inv. and Ret. Plan v. Harris, 217 F. Supp. 2d 759, 761 (E.D. Tex. 2002).
been married to the participant for at least one year at the time of death. Id. The
QPSA did not offer the option of naming a contingent beneficiary. Id. at *6.
Pursuant to a motion for summary judgment, the Honeywell court had to determine
whether, as a matter of law, the participant’s husband was eligible to receive
benefits under the employee benefit plans. Id. at *1.
To decide the issue, the Honeywell court examined both the relevant state
slayer statute and the federal common law rule. The court found that the principles
governing the state slayer statute were consistent with the federal common law
standard so that the result was the same under either rule: the plan participant’s
husband was “not eligible to receive any benefits because he may not profit from
his wrongful act.” Id. at *6. Treating the husband as predeceasing his wife, the
court looked to the terms of the plans to determine the proper beneficiaries. Id.
The court declared that the estate was the proper beneficiary under the terms of the
SOP and the SBP. The court also held that under the terms of the QPSA, only the
surviving spouse could receive pension benefits; the plan did not provide for a
contingent beneficiary. Id. Because the husband was ineligible for the QPSA
benefit, the court concluded that “there is no beneficiary to whom the Pension Plan
may be paid. The Pension Plan benefits will not be paid to any person.” Id.
As in Honeywell, federal common law and the Alabama slayer statute are
consistent and produce the same result in this case. The relevant portion of the
Alabama slayer statute states:
(c) A named beneficiary of a bond, life insurance policy, or other
contractual arrangement who feloniously and intentionally kills the
principal obligee or the person upon whose life the policy is issued is
not entitled to any benefit under the bond, policy or other contractual
arrangement, and it becomes payable as though the killer had
predeceased the decedent.
Ala. Code § 43-8-253(c). The Alabama slayer statute treats Mrs. Box as though
she predeceased Mr. Box. Therefore, Mrs. Box is not entitled to the QPSA benefit
under Alabama law.
The federal common law principle regarding slayers is that no person should
profit from her own wrong. See Giles v. California, 554 U.S. 353, 384 (2008)
(citing N.Y. Life Ins. Co. v. Armstrong, 117 U.S. 591, 600 (1886)); see also
Honeywell Savings & Ownership Plan v. Jicha, 2010 WL 276237, at *6. Thus,
under either the Alabama slayer statute or federal common law, Mrs. Box is
ineligible for the spousal benefit.
Under the terms of the Goodyear plan, Mrs. Box is the only QPSA
beneficiary. The plan does not identify a contingent beneficiary. Applying the
legal fiction that Mrs. Box predeceased her husband, there is no surviving spouse
and thus no beneficiary to whom Goodyear must pay the spousal benefit.
Therefore, as in Honeywell, the QPSA benefit should not be paid at all.
The estate of Kenneth Box points to New Orleans Elec. Pension Fund v.
DeRocha, 779 F. Supp 845 (E.D. La. 1991), for the proposition that when a
surviving spouse is disqualified under a QPSA, the benefit must be paid to the
contingent beneficiary or the estate of the plan participant. (Doc. 16, p. 21–22).
That decision is not persuasive in this case. Under the terms of the plan at issue in
DeRocha, if a spouse was ineligible for the QPSA benefit, then the plan required
payment to the designated beneficiary. DeRocha, 779 F. Supp. at 851. Moreover,
Louisiana law provides that when a beneficiary becomes disqualified because the
beneficiary is responsible for the death of the insured, the contingent beneficiary
receives the proceeds. Id. Therefore, in DeRocha, both the plan and state law
mandated payment of the QPSA proceeds to a contingent beneficiary named in the
plan.4 In this case, neither the terms of the QPSA nor Alabama law requires
payment of the QPSA to a contingent beneficiary. 5
The Louisiana Code states:
(1) No beneficiary, assignee, or other payee under any personal insurance contract shall
receive from the insurer any benefits under the contract accruing upon the death,
disablement, or injury of the individual insured when the beneficiary, assignee, or other
payee is either:
(a) Held by a final judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction to be criminally
responsible for the death, disablement, or injury of the individual insured.
(b) Judicially determined to have participated in the intentional, unjustified killing of the
(2) Where such a disqualification exists, the policy proceeds shall be payable to the
secondary or contingent beneficiary, unless similarly disqualified, or, if no secondary or
contingent beneficiary exists, to the estate of the insured. Nothing contained in this
Section shall prohibit payment pursuant to an assignment of the policy proceeds where
such payment defrays the cost and expenses of the insured's funeral or expense incurred
in connection with medical treatment of the insured. Nothing contained in this Section
shall prohibit payment of insurance proceeds pursuant to a facility of payment clause, so
long as such payment is not made to a beneficiary, assignee, or other payee disqualified
by this Section.
LSA-R.S. 22:901(D). Alabama’s slayer statute does not contain a provision similar to LSA-R.S.
22:901(D)(2) that requires payment of policy proceeds to the decedent’s estate if no secondary or
contingent beneficiary exists.
The Box estate argues that under Alabama law, in a slayer situation, plan benefits pass to the
decedent’s estate. (Doc. 16, p. 20). In support of this argument, the estate points to two
Alabama Supreme Court opinions: Protective Life Ins. Co. v. Linson, 17 So. 2d 761 (1944), and
Provident Life & Acc. Ins. Co. v. Hanna, 311 So. 2d 294 (1975). In Linson, the Alabama
Supreme Court recited the “well-settled rule” that “‘a beneficiary in a life insurance policy who
murders or feloniously causes the death of the insured forfeits all rights which he may have in or
under the policy. This rule is based upon public policy and upon the principle that no one shall
be allowed to benefit from his own wrong. * * *.’ 29 Am.Jur. § 1310.” Id. at 761. The
beneficiary of the group life insurance policy at issue in Linson avoided application of the slayer
rule in the trial court by relying on an incontestability clause in the policy. The Alabama
Supreme Court reversed the trial court decision, holding that “[t]he basic reasons behind the
denial of recovery in [a slayer] case are so compelling, we now declare the rule that no
incontestability clause can invest the beneficiary who has feloniously slain the insured with the
right to recover the death benefit, by stipulations closing the door to such defense or otherwise.”
Id. at 763. The insurer argued that because the beneficiary of the policy murdered the insured,
the policy should be treated “as if no beneficiary had been named, the cause of action being in
the personal representative of the insured.” 17 So. 2d at 762. The Alabama Supreme Court did
not answer the argument directly but noted that, “‘[t]he fact that [the] public policy prevents the
payment of the insurance benefits to the murderer does not void the insurance policy; the liability
of the insurer is just the same when death is the result of murder as when it is produced by any
other cause, and if there is any person who has a right to the benefits of the policy, his rights will
be enforced.’” Id. (quoting Austin v. United States, 125 F.2d 816, 820 (7th Cir. 1942)).
In Hanna, the Alabama Supreme Court explained that, “[a]s decided in [Linson], where the
primary beneficiary’s rights are forfeited, the insurance company remains liable for the proceeds
of the policy, to the contingent beneficiary or the insured’s estate, as the case may be.” Hanna,
311 So. 2d at 297. The policy at issue in Hanna expressly stated that, “‘[a]ny amount of
insurance for which there is no beneficiary at the death of the Employee shall be payable to the
estate of the Employee.’” Id. at 295 (quoting the policy at issue). Neither Linson nor Hanna
establishes a rule requiring an insurer to pay the estate in every slayer situation. Rather, the
opinions stand for the proposition that in a slayer situation, the insurer is not relieved of its
obligation to pay a person who has a contractual right to the benefits of the policy upon
disqualification of the slayer. Here, Mrs. Box is the only person who may recover the QPSA
The Box estate also argues that state law must fill the “gap” created by the
plan’s failure to provide for a contingent beneficiary. (Doc. 18, p. 14–15). Here,
the plan expressly provides for an alternative beneficiary in other situations, such
as the death benefit described in Article IV(8)(d). (Doc. 14-9, p. 9). Like the court
in Honeywell, this Court views the absence of an express provision for a contingent
beneficiary not as a gap in the plan, but as an expression of intent not to provide
such a benefit. Alabama’s rules of contract interpretation support the Court’s
analysis. See Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London v. Kirkland, 69 So. 3d 98,
101 (Ala. 2011) (“Insurance contracts, like other contracts, are construed so as to
give effect to the intention of the parties, and, to determine this intent, a court must
examine more than an isolated sentence or term; it must read each phrase in the
context of all other provisions.”) (internal quotations omitted). Even if this Court
were to regard the absence of a provision for a contingent beneficiary as a gap in
the plan, Alabama law does not supply a means to fill the gap. See note 5, supra.
Alabama’s slayer statute does not require Goodyear to make payments to the
estate. The statute mandates that the policy “becomes payable as though the killer
had predeceased the decedent.”
Under the terms of the plan, if Mrs. Box
predeceased Mr. Box, Goodyear would not have to pay the pre-retirement spousal
benefit under the terms of the Goodyear plan. Because Mrs. Box is ineligible for the benefit as a
matter of law, Goodyear does not have to pay the benefits.
benefit. Thus, even applying state law to fill the gap, Goodyear properly refused to
pay benefits to the Box estate.
Thus, based on its de novo review of the record, the Court finds that the plan
administrator’s decision to deny benefits was correct.
Plaintiffs’ Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim Fails as a Matter of
As an alternative to the estate’s claim for plan benefits under § 1132(a)(1),
the estate seeks equitable relief for breach of fiduciary duty under § 1132(a)(3).
(Doc. 1, ¶¶ 35–41). Claims for equitable relief under § 1132(a)(3) are available
only when a plaintiff has no other claim for relief under ERISA. See Varity Corp.
v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 515 (1996); Ogden v. Blue Bell Creameries U.S.A., Inc.,
348 F.3d 1284 (11th Cir. 2003) (stating that the central focus is “whether Congress
has provided an adequate remedy . . . elsewhere in the ERISA statutory
framework”). The estate’s primary claim is for an award of plan benefits under §
1132(a)(1), and the relief sought for breach of fiduciary duty is an award of those
same benefits. (Doc. 1, pp. 10–11). Congress has provided an adequate remedy
for plaintiffs’ claims under § 1132(a)(1). Therefore, the estate may not pursue
For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS Goodyear’s motion for
summary judgment (Doc. 14) and DENIES the estate of Kenneth Box’s motion for
summary judgment (Doc. 15). The Court will enter a final order consistent with
this memorandum opinion.
DONE and ORDERED this September 25, 2014.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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